The Language of Christmas

So, there I was last Sunday, standing with the rest of the congregation, singing a Christmas carol and entering into the spirit of Christmas, when I got a rude shock.

The Mental Picture
“Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing o’er the plains . . .” As we sang, I visualized flocks of sheep asleep under the starry night sky; the watching shepherds by their little campfire, the sudden appearance of the angel of God with his announcement of the birth of the long-awaited Messiah; and, of course, the blast of light and music as the heavenly choirs burst onto the scene with their song of praise and promise.

But then my mental picture was shattered as we sang the chorus, echoing what the angels sang, “Gloria in excelsis Deo!”

The Rude Shock
What?! What nonsense is this?! Latin? No way! Why on earth would angels sing in Latin, the language of the hated Roman oppressors? The language of the occupying soldiers!

No, those Christmas angel choirs didn’t sing in Latin. Of course not. They sang in Aramaic, the native language of the shepherds—the language the shepherds’ forefathers had learned to speak centuries before, during several generations of exile in Babylon—what is now Iraq.

Singing about the greatness of God to Judean shepherds in the Romans’ language would make as much sense as singing to North Americans in the Canelas’ language. I can hear it already, “Quê ha côjkwa kam mehcunea jirôpê, Pahpãm pejti ne cati na me harẽ!”
What a thrilling message!. . . .Not!

God Spoke in Hebrew
God, the Great Linguist, always communicates to people in their own language. In the beginning, he spoke directly to Abraham, Moses, and the prophets in Hebrew, the language of the people of Israel. That is why almost the entire Old Testament was written in Hebrew.

God Spoke in Aramaic
Later on, God spoke to the Jewish people in Palestine in Aramaic. Jesus told his parables in Aramaic, taught the disciples to pray in Aramaic, and for many years all Jesus’ teachings and stories about Jesus circulated as oral traditions in Aramaic.

God Spoke in Greek
Several generations before Jesus was born, scholars translated the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek since it was the most important, most used language in the Mediterranean region. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John eventually translated all Jesus stories and teachings from Aramaic into Greek and wrote them down. The rest of the books of the New Testament were also written in Greek. God, therefore, spoke Greek to millions more people.

God Spoke in Latin
Several centuries later, through the work of Jerome the Bible translator, God communicated in Latin to more millions of people in Europe and the Mediterranean region who spoke Latin as their first language.

By the way, the Bible was translated into ordinary Greek and Latin, the language spoken by people in their homes and on the streets, not into the high classic forms used by scholars and the elite.

All this flashed through my mind as I continued singing that Christmas carol. We sat down and during the announcements I scribbled some notes for this column.

Christianity is Unique Among World Religions

  • Christianity is the only world religion that has no special “Holy Language.” Hebrew is not, nor is Greek. Neither Latin nor King James Version English is a “Holy Language.” To God, there are no unclean cultures or improper languages. In one sense, every language and every culture can, through Bible translation, become a “Holy Language.”
  • Christianity is the only world religion in which almost none of the actual words of the Founder are preserved in the language in which He spoke them. Except for a half a dozen phrases such as Jesus’ words from the cross, every word from His mouth, we know only from the Greek translation.
  • Christianity is the only world religion that spreads through the translation of the Bible into other languages. Right from the beginning, Christianity was a translated religion, the only world religion that is propagated almost totally outside the language of the Founder.
  • Christianity is the only world religion that adopts the indigenous names for the High God, the God of the Bible: El, Yahweh, Theos, Deo, Deus, Gott, God, Pahpam, Tupan, Imana, Yala, Kalunga, and thousands more.
  • Christianity is the only world religion that has no cultural or geographical centre. Christianity is as much at home in a cave in Cambodia as in a cathedral in Canberra.
  • Christianity is the only world religion whose Holy Book is, by far, the most translated book in the world. It has been translated in whole or in part or is being translated right now in over five thousand languages. Bible translation projects are expected to be started in the remaining languages of the world by the year 2025.
  • Christianity is also unique in that it flourishes where the Bible is read in the ordinary, mundane, everyday language of the people. On the other hand, Christianity is weak and anemic where believers are forced to read a Bible that is not in their own heart language. The very reason God revealed Himself in the Bible is so He would be known by people in every language and ethnic group. The Bible, therefore, exists to spread Christianity.
  • By abandoning Jesus’ mother tongue, Christianity has liberated the Good News to every language. No language is incapable of fully holding the truth of God’s Word.

The Language of Christmas
So, is there a language of Christmas? Yes. Any language is the language of Christmas when the full meaning of Christmas is transmitted to the mind and heart of the hearer or reader. Those angels knew and sang in the language of their hearers.

Hansje Enjoys a Special Christmas Feast

A true Christmas story from the first volume of my upcoming auto-biography–written to be read to children. Yes, my name was Hansje. This happened in 1944 during the Nazi occupation of Holland.

The December that Hansje was six years old was not a fun time. First, it was much colder than usual. And the bad soldiers often shut off the electricity and the gas. So the heaters were off most of the time, even the burners on the kitchen stove weren’t working very often. Everyone had to wear their coats all the time, even in the house, sometimes even in bed.

But not only was it cold, there was also very little food to eat. Many days the stores had no bread, no milk, no meat, no food of any kind. The bad soldiers just kept taking food right from the farms, and ate it themselves, or sent it away to their own country. There was never enough left for the people in the country where Hansje lived.

Once in a while, when there was some food in the stores, people were allowed to buy just one or two things so that everyone would have a little before the food was all gone again. Even rich people couldn’t buy all the food they wanted because that would mean other people would have nothing. Yes, during the time those bad soldiers were in Hansje’s country, things were very, very bad.

One day, Hansje’s Papa said, “I have a surprise! I bought some cheese, some special cheese called Slide Cheese. We will eat it for our Christmas feast.”

Hansje thought he maybe remembered tasting cheese once long ago, and liking it very much. He didn’t know what a Christmas feast was, but it sounded so exciting he could hardly wait for Christmas.

candles on treeOn Christmas Eve Papa closed the curtains and lit the candles on the tiny Christmas tree. Hansje sat close to the coal heater with his parents. Mama was holding his baby brother Wobbie in her lap, and his little sister Jannie sat on Papa’s lap. They sang Christmas carols while Wobbie and Jannie stared wide-eyed at the flickering candles. Hansje liked the carols, but he kept thinking about what was going to happen next.

After the carol singing Mama put the little ones to bed. Finally, it was time for the long-awaited Slide cheese feast. Mama laid three small buns on top of the coal heater. While they were warming up, Papa read the Christmas story from the Children’s Bible. Hansje had heard the Christmas story before, and it was good, but smelling the toasting buns was even better.

When the buns were toasty and warm, Mama slit each one into two slices and put them on a plate on the side table. Then Papa reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a small, flat package and laid it on the plate, too.

Hansje could hardly wait, but first Papa prayed and thanked God for the food and asked Him to bless the special Christmas feast.

Then he took the flat package, opened it carefully, and there on his hand lay a piece of Slide Cheese, just the right size to cover a slice of bun. He laid it carefully on one half of a toasty warm bun and said,

“Now watch closely so you’ll know how to eat this special Slide Cheese.”

He held the bread and cheese to his nose and sniffed it. Hansje’s mouth watered just watching him. Then Papa slowly and carefully put it into his mouth.

But, just as the bun was passing his lips, his front teeth caught the edge of the cheese and slid it back. Then he took a bite, not of the cheese, just the toasted bun. He chewed it with his eyes closed, obviously enjoying it a lot.

Next it was Mama’s turn. She did the same thing, sliding the cheese back and eating only a bit of bun. At last it was Hansje’s turn. Both Mama and Papa watched closely to make sure he did everything right. He sniffed the cheese, and its wonderful cheese smell reminded him of the last time he tasted cheese long ago. He slid the cheese back with his teeth, bit off a piece of bun, and chewed and tasted it for a long time with his eyes closed.

Then it was Papa’s turn again. When they finally finished those six slices of bun, the candles had almost burned out and at the end they still had the whole piece of Slide Cheese.

“Tomorrow is Christmas Day,” Papa said, “and we will do this again. But then, when only three slices of bun are left, do you know what we will do?”

We’ll cut the Slide Cheese into three piece and actually eat it!” Hansje shouted.

“Shush!” Mama whispered, “You’ll wake the little ones.”

“Yes,” said Papa smiling at Hansje’s excitement, “We’ll eat the whole slice up tomorrow.”

And that is what they did at their special Christmas feast.

It was the best Christmas feast Hansje had ever eaten!

Blessed Christmas & Prosperous New Year

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A Quarter of Jo’s Growing Collection of International Nativity Scenes

Jo and I are looking forward to celebrating with our whole family sometime between Christmas and New Year when we are all together.

Thank you for reading my blog and emailing your many comments this past year. I learn something new every time I blog a new posting. I’m looking forward to more writing, more readers and more comments from you in the coming year.

My our Lord bless and prosper each one of you in every way this coming year.

A Blessed Christmas and a Prosperous New Year from both of us,

Jack and Jo